I was shocked when I heard that Prince had died. Not just shock that someone as clean living as he could die so relatively young. But shocked at how grief-stricken I was.
Having fallen out of love with his music in recent years – a mark of how much stock I once placed in it – imagining a world without him suddenly left me bereft in a way other celebrity deaths hadn’t. As someone who usually views collective outpourings of grief with some skepticism, I found myself unsure how someone I had never met could make me feel so bereaved. But the feeling was authentic.
Some of that might be to do with representation and projection. In the 80s and 90s, there were virtually no Asian pop stars on TV. Prince however – racially ambiguous, softly spoken, and thin – made me wonder if we had something in common. Still in Junior school, I didn’t have the vocabulary of cultural theorists, but something about Prince’s rejection of gender norms struck a chord. His pose in images – like that on the back of the 1999 single where he lies, back naked, and backside arched – was interesting and deeply puzzling. Even at a time when gender blurring was de rigeur for pop, Prince took great delight in perplexing, button-pushing behavior. It was unquestioningly priapic, but it was equally feminine; a way to seduce and empathise as well as offer a challenge to dominant expressions of manhood. Was the appeal simply that it was a rejection of the macho, patriarchal masculinity I was used to, but never totally comfortable with? Perhaps. Prince’s display of sensitivity was an obvious draw for a shy, quiet boy who often preferred the company of his aunts to his uncles. His vision of masculinity was one that perhaps only truly made sense for a privileged, powerful rock star, but nonetheless, it presented a different way of being a man (no wonder that years later I would fall for the music of Bowie, Morrissey, Little Richard, and anyone else singing in falsetto).
Later, as I entered mid-adolescence, I gravitated towards the hyper machismo of hip-hop, most likely looking for new models of maleness in the music I listened to. The same music seemed to engender in Prince his own period of uncertainty. When it seemed that in his dotage, he began to renege on his earlier thoughts on gender, seemingly out to show he could do macho like anyone else, it felt like a disappointment; a betrayal of his earlier ideas. Though perhaps it just showed that he was no different to any of us, in falling susceptible to societal norms. And yet, even if the outfits started to get more conservative, Prince could never completely retire his heels, or emerge without eye liner. As the title of song from Rave Unto the Joy Fantastic went, he was a Pretty Man.
Have I ever worn make up myself? No. I’m not brave enough. But while Prince was there, I didn’t need to. For that, I hope that in the next life, as in this one, he gets to be the man he wants to be.
Let a woman be a woman and a man be a man
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Sunil Chauhan is a freelance writer, specialising in music, who has been published in titles including Echoes, DJ Mag, Music Week and Hip-Hop Connection. When not listening to music or annoying people around him with air/table-drumming, he is happiest in a darkened cinema, marvelling at birds in Regents or St. James Park, or cycling. He writes short stories and is writing his first play.
The Morning Papers is a collection of pieces about Prince. In April, Music lost a singer and musician, but we writers also lost a poet. Whether it was his characters, or his line by line precision and intimacy; Prince was every bit the alchemist of words as well as music. In this space writers were invited to talk about the artist, in whatever context they desired. Curated by Sharmila Chauhan.